I keep coming across the idea that games are informing the design of experiences that were traditionally not thought to have anything to with games, and there’s something about the way it’s expressed that’s been really annoying me. All these examples – the design of a new car fuel gauge, Amy Jo Kim calling social network one-upmanship “playful”, or the dystopian world mapped out by Jesse Schell at DICE recently – equate “accumulating points” with “playing a game”. And it’s just not true.
Jesse Schell should know better, actually: his book on game design is a fabulously sensitive journey through the complex and ephemeral things that make a game a game. Maybe I misunderstood his talk. But the thing that no-one’s saying, out of all the people who know better, is that games that depend solely on accumulating points are rubbish games. And there are lots of great games, games that inspire and transport, games that show you a different way of experiencing the world, that have nothing whatever to do with points. Points are for people with no imagination.
This is part of a wider tendency for people to overgeneralise when they talk about games, to take one part of it for the whole domain, to imagine that the part that grabs their attention most readily is the defining part. For a while now I’ve been talking and working with people in education who have an interest in games, usually because they see the way players devote their attention and focus to them and imagine that presenting their learning content in a game-like way will lead to that level of engagement being replicated. Frequently, it becomes apparent after a few minutes conversation that they think the game lives in the technology, and that as long as a screenshot looks game-y it’ll magically engage their students. They’re normally wrong, obviously, having never considered the structure of the experience, the careful thought that game designers (good ones) put in to keeping the level of challenge appropriate, or any of the other things that make games so much more than a mode of presentation. People who believe that assigning points to actions make an activity a game are making as large an error.
There are a few sources I can think of for the mistake. Firstly, it’s unavoidably true that points are frequently found in games, and it’s not unreasonable to think that they must be an important feature of games. Points are found in most early games, and when you’re working with a system as simple and limited as those early games, points are a pretty good reflection of what’s going on. There are only a few things to do, and usually one clear aim, and it’s easy to mimic a narrative by coding a repetitive mechanic, tweaking the difficulty and using points to provide a temporal structure (no points = “the beginning of time”, some points = “later”). Certainly there’s no room in a Pac-Man or Space Invaders cabinet for different maps, or new challenges. Points are good for keeping track of simple things, and when you don’t have many complex things they do fine. It’s noticeable, though, that there are fewer games released now that have the accumulation of points as a central mechanic.
The second root that springs to mind is the construction “to game”, in the sense of someone “gaming the system”. Huizinga offers a fascinating exploration of the etymology of play-related words like “game” in Homo Ludens, which makes clear that these words have a complex lineage, and the long history and central importance of our oldest parts of language can lead to misleading similarities. In short, where attributes are ranked numerically, people work to make themsleves appear higher in the ranking through actions that might not be what was being assessed. That is, they maniuplate their score: they game the system, in English. But, although this sense of “game” is related to the sense of “structured playful activity” via the card-tables and stock markets of renaissance Europe, it doesn’t actually mean the same thing. I have an idea that the association of this sense with scores, tables of achievement, ranking and so on makes it easier for people to elide the distinction and think they’re using the same word. But they aren’t, and a system that can be gamed is not necessarily a game. Metaphor is slippery, and hard to keep track of, and here I think it’s misled some people.
The third factor that occurs to me is our deep-rooted compulsive behaviour. People are good at behaving repetitively in search of some kind of chemical reward, whether it’s hammering mistakenly at a traffic-crossing button, or checking email again and again. Game designers are well-aware of this, of course, and make regular use of the principles of irregular reward that keep lab rats pressing buttons and hoping for sugared water: will there be a fuel dump there? Should I try walking into that wall? Using this sort of primal psychology in the service of the wider game seems more justifiable to me, somehow, than basing an entire game round it.
So none of these are so very important when considering actual games. What’s worrying, what makes it so vital that we clear this up now before it gets out of hand, is that there seems to be a wider enthusiasm for turning a lot of our online gardening into point-accumulation opportunities. People have noticed Xbox achievements; we’re familiar with the race to accumulate friends or followers on new online network tools; prototypical gaming forays into new forms of media (the first Facebook, or GPS, or AR games) tend to use the simplest possible game mechanics in the proof-of-concept stage. These seem to help to convince people of the supposedly increasingly playful nature of society, proof that games have won and that in the near future all our interactions will earn points. And it’s this that’s so worrying, this idea that it’s right our actions in the world should be quantified so thoroughly.
Play is dangerous and subversive. It’s a frivolous, unproductive, trivial waste of resources: these attitudes have been around for a long time (though perhaps not as long as play has). But the last hundred years of industrialisation and standardisation have made it even harder for activity that appears meaningless to be condoned, more difficult to sanction behaviour that seems not to be directed towards a particular goal, more important that effort be directed towards a clearly-defined outcome with economic value. Numbers are a big part of this. Nothing is usable, no information is meaningful, nothing can be recognised or acknowledged without it being quantifiable. Turning human interactions into opportunities to amass scores is just an extension of this way of thinking: ultimately, quantifying our relationships with people, or our driving habits, is something that serves advertisers much more than it serves us. It might be true that we’re finding more ways to award points for more of our activity, but this doesn’t mean that society is becoming more playful. It means that play is becoming more socialised.
Seeing the accumulation of points as the central, defining characteristic of games means we’ve taken the worst bits of games, the parts that we’ve nearly grown out of, the features that speak to the least human and most animal parts of us, and I don’t think we should do that. Computer games originally used points because they had to: with limited memory and little experience in designing games, it made sense to use points. Later, points were a way to reflect progress in a wider narrative, a way of quantifying progress that acted in the service of something larger. Now, it’s possible to design games that offer reward and track achievement through more subtle means than numbers. Chasing numbers is dehumanising and humiliating. Now computers have grown out of having to use scores to track our progress, shouldn’t we?